Saturday, 31 July 2010

The big society and the third sector

While I was on the way to a policy forum at British Academy yesterday, Reuters rang me and asked me for my views on the Big Society. I should have waited until I got to the policy forum when Sam Brittan described it as the grandchild of the third way, another semi-populist idea. He didn't mind as long as he was not asked to lead a troop of boy scouts round Notting Hill!

The big society will depend on third sector organisations recruiting, mobilising and organising volunteeers. To do that they will need some money. The other question is where these volunteers are going to come from. People in work and with families are time poor. Decades ago women who did not go to work provided a ready made supply of volunteers for charitable work, but social changes have led to their disappearance. That leaves the active elderly and many of them are already committed to organisations like the National Trust or charity shops.

As it so happens, I was talking to a third sector organisation earlier in the week and the Government had stated that they would be taken on responsibilities it was dropping which was fine in principle except that there had been no prior discussion about this.

The literature shows that third sector organisations are often particularly good at serving client groups with heterogeneous needs. They are more flexible than traditional state bureaucracies and often more dynamic. So there could certainly be an extended role for them, but it will require some money and a little more forethought and discussion. It is certainly not going to bring quick results.

Thursday, 29 July 2010

Forming the Coalition Government

There were two key revelations in last night's BBC2 programme. First that the Conservatives had clearly thought through before the election what they would do in the event of a hung Parliament and had an eleven point offer to put on the table to the Liberal Democrats. Labour had no game plan. This confirms my view that the Conservatives have a greater appetite for power.

Second David Cameron and Nick Clegg had a 45 minute conversation at the opening of the Supreme Court in October 2009. This led them to believe that they were on the same wavelength and had been motivated to enter politics for similar reasons.

Sunday, 25 July 2010

What happens to former prime ministers?

I have been reading a very interesting book by Kevin Theakston After Number 10. In the States, the notion of an effective post-presidency was really invented by Jimmy Carter who seems to have made a more positive impact once he left office. There are analogies in Britain, Balfour being a prime example.

Some of the least successful prime ministers have enjoyed life much more after leaving office, examples including Sir Alec Douglas-Home, who returned to office as Foreign Secretary, and Sir John Major who has developed a series of business roles and enjoyed his cricket. Hinterland seems to be important. For those for whom politics was the centre of their lives, such as Harold Wilson and Margaret Thatcher, the adjustment has been much more difficult.

What is certainly the case is that prime ministers no longer have financial problems once they leave office. Asquith had to be helped out by his friends, as did Churchill (who admittedly was a big spender) and Attlee left very little money. These days not only is there the autobiography, but also the chance to make big bucks on the American lecture circuit.

Gordon Brown is not, of course, in the book. But he said that he intends to devote himself to his constituents and to international development work, particularly in Africa where he has been this weekend.

Friday, 23 July 2010

A special relationship?

David Cameron’s visit to the United States for talks with President Obama has once again highlighted the so-called ‘special’ relationship between Britain and the United States. There are those who doubt that there is a special relationship at all and in these talks it was re-christened a ‘special’ relationship. It had a particular character during the Cold War when Britain was an important base for the United States, sometimes referred to as a static aircraft carrier.

However, anyone who doubts that the relationship is an enduring one in the context of the fight against terrorism should look at the recent book on electronic eavesdropping by GCHQ written by my colleague Richard Aldrich and obtain favourable reviews in the quality press. The intelligence partnership has always been central to the relationship and in that sense it is special.

On this visit David Cameron has been under pressure on the subject of BP, both on the oil spill in the Gulf and unproven allegations that the release of the Lockerbie bomber was in some way linked with an oil deal with Libya. The fact that Cameron opposed the prisoner release in opposition helped him to navigate this tricky issue. However, one of his central objectives on this visit was to attract US investment to boost the UK economy which is why he went to New York and was seen eating a hot dog with the mayor.

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Nick blots his copy book

I watched Nick Clegg answer Prime Minister's Questions yesterday. Apparently this was a historic occasion as no Liberal leader had been in this position since Lloyd George, except that LG was not leader of the Liberals at the time. In any case PMQs did not start until 1961.

It seemed a polished enough performance, although Jack Straw's interrogation was persistent and long winded but hardly unnerving. Nevertheless, George Osborne kept giving him words of advice.

However, it appears that Nick made two serious errors. He said that the invasion of Iraq wsas illegal which is not the Coalition Government's position and he said that Yarl's Wood detention centure will close which again is not policy.

Perhaps his lack of experience showed, indeed at one point he referred to his old role across the chamber.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Act of Settlement row

Edinburgh: It may not be a big news story south of the border, but the Catholic Church in Scotland is furious that the Coalition Government is not going to repeal the Act of Settlement: Settlement

The Act prohibits a member of the Royal Family marrying a Catholic or converting to Catholicism (as Charles the Second did on his death bed). It was a piece of modernisation that New Labour favoured but David Cameron may think it's not worth the trouble, particularly given the current travails of the Church of England.

Monday, 12 July 2010

Bigging up Mandy

The Times is bigging up Peter Mandelson's memoirs, no doubt hope to attract paid traffic to its new website. As a subscriber to the paper, I was offered 'exclusive' video access on Saturday. I didn't bother.

No doubt Mandy's memoirs will be essential reading for those interested in the toxic conflicts at the top of New Labour. The Brown-Blair struggle had a damaging effect on the conduct of public policy and the effectiveness of the Government. Mandy says that he has rushed his memoirs out in order to inform candidates in the titanic struggle for the Labour leadership, but some commentators think he has been motivated by getting his account ahead of the Reverend Blair who is none too pleased according to some accounts.

There is a sense in which the dysfunctional struggles at the top of New Labour are yesterday's story. We now have a new Government which appears to be functioning well, the odd slip by particular ministers aside. George Osborne's ratings have shot up and William Hague is getting deservedly favourable coverage for his pragmatic yet still strategic conduct of foreign policy.

Mandy has revealed that Nick Clegg wanted Gordon Brown to go as the price of any coalition with Labour and that Gordon, reasonably enough, thought he had been humiliated enough. But most people had worked that out for themselves.

Sunday, 4 July 2010

The forty per cent row

The Coalition Government has been accused of 'scare tactics' for asking departments to model 40 per cent cuts. A more sophisticated critique is that this is expectations management: when the cuts turn out to be less than 40 per cent, everyone would be relieved.

The Government's position, as explained by Phil Hammond (who would have been chief secretary to the Treasury if there wasn't a coalition) is as follows: two budgets (NHS and overseas development) have been ring fenced. Education and defence have been limited to cuts of 10 per cent and 20 per cent. That means that some departments will have to experience cuts of more than 25 per cent. The exercise of asking them to model 40 per cent cuts is a way of finding out what departments think is really essential.

A survey referred to on Radio 5 this morning found that those interviewed favoured cuts in overseas development and 'quangos'. Overseas development is only 0.7 per cent of the total budget and as for the 'charity begins at home' argument it would be interesting to see how some British people would cope with living on one dollar or two dollars a day.

The 'quangos' argument is a bit of a red herring. There is no evidence that quangos are any more or less efficient than central government departments. Indeed, they can be cheaper to run as many of them (probably most) are located outside London. What one does need to ask is whether the tasks they perform are essential or desirable and it is probably the case that quangos tend to do more tasks in the 'desirable' category. For example, it is apparent that some of them have advocacy roles and it is open to question whether that is a role of government at all.

Saturday, 3 July 2010

Do they still agree with Nick?

The Hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire

Lib Dem MP Jo Swinson tweeted this article which defends the role of the Lib Dems in the Coalition Government: Nick

Judging from her tweets, Swinson spends much of her time on an endless tour of events in her East Dunbartonshire constituency or raising issues like the security fencing round the Milngavie (Mull-guy) Reservoir. Makes sense given that her majority was down in May.

However, her many followers were puzzled by a tweet sent out around midnight last Saturday: Yes. What can she have meant?

Friday, 2 July 2010

Sam Cam unveils waxwork of Dave

I was very disappointed when I took my oldest granddaughter to Madame Tussaud's recently to find no waxwork model of David Cameron. But all has now been put right and Sam Cam has unveiled what she rates as a very lifelike model of her husband:

When we will see a model of Nick Clegg? I don't suppose his wife would turn up to unveil it?

Thursday, 1 July 2010

The AV referendum

As expected, this has been scheduled to coincide with the local and devolved elections next May in the hope of boosting turnout. One of the problems with PR as an issue is that although it excites the political class it doesn't feature in the most important isues selected by the electorate in the polls.

In many ways it will be a watershed for the coalition. If the Liberal Democrats win the referendum, then they will have got one of their most sought after lasting gains from the Coalition - although in practice AV is just a modified version of first-past-the post and isn't going to make a massive difference to outcomes. It certainly may not offset the loss of left-leaning votes the Lib Dems are likely to suffer. But, of course, it could be the start of a slippery PR slope.

If the referendum fails, which is the less likely outcome, then Liberal Democrats will be asking what they have got out of the coalition given the sacrifices they have had to make on other policies. Either way, tensions within the coalition will increase at the time that public expenditure cuts start to bite. Already the Lib Dem MP for Cheltenham is complaining about the closure of the Commission for Rural Communities quango in his constitency with the loss of 60 jobs.

My guess is that the Coalition Government will not be able to eliminate the structural deficit in the lifetime of the Parliament because the political costs will be too high. It's an ambitious target, but certainly preferable to Labour's unambitious one which would not have reassured the financial markets. However, I think there may be some trimming as the electoral cycle progresss and if the strictural deficit is reduced by, say, three-quarters, that will be a result.